Early last year, before ‘lockdown’ was a term that most of us had uttered, Winterwatch aired a segment showing author Joe Harkness in conversation with Chris Packham, on how connecting with nature had helped them with their mental health. Both men spoke candidly and openly about their thoughts of suicide, and how nature was the road to recovery that they both needed.
It got me thinking about how right now, with many of us in lockdown or shielding from our close friends and family, nature could offer a lifeline to many.
For everyone across the UK, COVID-19 lockdown measures have left us scrambling to find a new normal and ways to keep ourselves emotionally well. Living through a worldwide pandemic, and hearing about daily death tolls and global panic are naturally anxiety-provoking even for the most stoic, balanced and resilient of individuals. As an anxious person and having none of these particular personal qualities, I have noticed my own anxiety understandably affected during this time.
When lockdown has been at its most restrictive, friends, family and colleagues have at times felt more distant than ever. A pixelated image and an intermittent WiFi connection is no substitute for seeing someone in person. Pubs and social spaces have been closed; cinemas, gyms, restaurants, nightclubs – the list is endless.
But something rarely mentioned has been the impact on our mental health due to these closures and restrictions. We all understand that we need to manage the virus with less physical contact with other humans. Yet until this point, the vast majority of advice in terms of managing our mental health told us to connect with others, to socialise, to get fit, to immerse in the arts and to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We’ve never been advised how to manage our mental health without most of these things being available.
But there’s something we can always connect with. It is a constant, it’s free and it’s available to anyone and everyone – nature.
Being an avid nature enthusiast, anyway – perhaps for me, lockdown was going to be less of a trial in terms of finding things to do than for those more in need of urban pursuits. But travelling restrictions have made it difficult to get out and about. Living in a city myself, the views I have of tower blocks and feral pigeons are a far cry from coastal vistas and the sounds of gulls calling overhead that some in lockdown may have. Sometimes you have to adapt and in doing so, it’s possible to re-connect with things that normally would be overlooked or discounted closer to home.
While I have a great love of nature and outdoor spaces generally, it’s birds that I get most excited about these days. It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, there’s likely a bird about to see. They’re easy to observe because they don’t all hide away like mammals and they’re present in most locations across the UK.
Living in a city, I don’t have a big garden, more a ‘Yarden’ with potted plants round the side. There’s a bird feeding station and I have focused on specific plants to attract insects.
Once I’d consciously decided to pay closer attention to birds I could see from the windows of my house, the first thing I noticed was a wren. The wren is one of the smallest UK birds and in most people’s eyes, it’s a little bit drab. But up close, a wren is intricately patterned and has a really cute stubby little tail that sits up. And then you hear its song – it’s so loud! When I first saw it sitting up on a fence post in the scrubland behind my house singing – with less traffic on the road – it seemed even louder. Wren’s seem to sing louder than most birds and part of their song includes a continuous trill that sounds like an avian machine gun. Next time you’re out walking and you hear a loud repetitive song – it’ll probably be a wren.
The next bird I noticed, again in the scrubland beyond my garden, was a whitethroat. This is a summer visitor to the UK and has a scratchy sound to its song. These little birds come to the UK to take advantage of all the bugs and insects we have in Europe during the summer months. But, as winter approaches, these little birds like many others will fly south. They fly to Africa, south of the Sahara. This is a creature that weighs about the same as a skinny household AAA battery, yet somehow it has the power and energy to propel itself thousands of miles. Perhaps because of the restrictions of lockdown, I was envious of this little bird and the freedom it had to go where it wished.
To try and attract more birds to within sight of my back window, I made sure I cleaned my bird feeders and refilled them to try and encourage some birds to actually come into the garden itself. And it didn’t take long for some birds to come and see what was on offer. The first birds we noticed were a pair of blue tits. They seemed to favour the fat balls we had put out and they had a go on the peanuts too. But they only seemed to visit once or twice and have not been seen since. A different story though for another bird species who has seemingly decided to move in.
One morning, we heard the very chattery sound of goldfinch and then noticed a pair had come to feed on the seeds we’d put out. There were two, and while one bird ate, the other would stand guard and look for danger. This is a good survival tactic because there is a sparrow hawk that often circles the housing estate above; again something I noticed in lockdown. Goldfinch are a common but really pretty little bird with yellow on the wing and a bright red face.
This pair of goldfinch have since visited every day. They’ve gotten through three full lots of seed mix now and they make a mess on the patio floor with their untidy eating. As the weather has been nice, I’ve been out in the garden lots. Sometimes these birds will circle the garden, notice I’m there and sit and wait in a tree until I’ve gone inside. Then they’ll pop down onto the feeders, announcing their arrival as they land. In our house, we get excited every day when we hear them arrive and we all rush to the window.
All of these things I noticed had been made possible because I looked. Nothing more than that. I took the time to look and in doing so I felt connected to the world around me; even though in many ways the world seemed more closed than ever. What’s brilliant about watching nature is that you can do it anywhere. It’s free and it’s all around. Observing nature is proven to be helpful to mental health and wellbeing too, so it’s good for us. Birdwatching in the garden certainly helped me navigate lockdown.
These experiences got me thinking about my role and my work as a suicide prevention adviser at HOPELINEUK. Many people contact HOPELINEUK looking for a way to keep safe from suicide for now. When thoughts of suicide are strong, it can be hard to focus the mind on the words in a book, pictures on a TV screen or conversations with family and friends. People sometimes tell us they feel numb, unable to concentrate on regular activities but worse; unable even to articulate to others how they feel or what they might need to feel better in that moment. For many, thoughts of suicide over lockdown have been even harder to manage as their movements have been restricted. I wondered – if birdwatching and observing nature could help me feel less anxious during my experience of lockdown – could it be helpful for those feeling suicidal, too?
As lockdown has eased, callers have been able to get out more and have been telling us that being outside has really helped their wellbeing. Walking is a great form of exercise and walking outdoors can be a really helpful way to focus the mind away from thoughts of suicide too. Sometimes it can help further by trying to focus on sensations that we’re experiencing as we walk. It can help us feel more grounded. Walk outside and notice what appeals to your senses.
Focus on something you can hear, something you can smell, and something you can feel. This could be the sound of birdsong as you walk, the smell of flowers, or the neighbours cooking something good for their tea. You may notice you feel cold or warm; perhaps the breeze on your face. Notice what you can see, search for birds or insects with your eyes as you walk. Look at the sky and your surroundings. Try and use your surroundings and your senses to bring you back to the present and away from the thoughts in your head that are focused on suicide.
None of these things may change why you’re feeling suicidal or even stop you feeling suicidal for long – but they might help you feel more in control if you’re feeling overwhelmed and consumed by thoughts of suicide in the moment. This could also buy you time; maybe get you in the right head space to be able to say how you feel to someone else or ask for help.
Longer term, spending time in or observing nature could play a part in a bigger journey of healing and recovery. For me, birds and birdwatching are a very important part of me feeling well generally. But I really noticed how much birdwatching and nature observation helped me navigate lockdown.
If you’re interested in nature as a way to keep well and particularly through observing birds – there’s a book called Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness! Joe talks openly and honestly about his own thoughts of suicide and how birdwatching helped him towards recovery and a future filled with HOPE.
With lockdown easing, I recently took a trip to Bempton Cliffs to try and see the puffins before they depart north in mid-July. It was an amazing day out. It felt so good to see the sea and to spend some time in a much more rural setting following lockdown in the city. I’m no photographer, but I did take a little video of the gannets and the surrounding cliffs so thought I’d share that with you.
Bempton Cliffs are famous for the puffins that come to breed between May and June. They also hold a huge gannet colony as well as a breeding site for a variety of other seabirds like guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake and fulmar. That day, I was also lucky enough to see some juvenile peregrine falcons learning to fly for the first time with help from the parents. The peregrine, of course, being the fastest animal on earth, and it lives in the UK!
If you’ve noticed that nature observation, birdwatching or exploring natural spaces has helped you during lockdown – we’d love to hear about it. Please feel free to share your pictures and videos with PAPYRUS and who knows – maybe in sharing your experiences of nature observation, learning about nature or connecting with nature, you could inspire another young person to go outdoors, and keep them safe from suicide.
If you’re a young person experiencing thoughts of suicide, or you’re concerned for a young person who is, HOPELINEUK is here for you. Call 0800 068 41 41 text 07860 039 967 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image: Pascal Mauerhofer on Unsplash.